During the last decade, Skidmore Owings & Merrill has been transforming skylines across the planet—the firm’s Chicago office is the quintessential skyscraper factory for the world’s financial elite, and its track record for reliable delivery and build quality means its prominence in the sector is unlikely to diminish any time soon.
Last month, SOM made a typically unapologetic return to Dubai, as the Cayan Tower (formerly named the Infinity Tower) opened with gold-plated fanfare. The distinctive, twisting structure embodies a combination of SOM’s mainstay of mega-engineering, with a fresh injection of formalistic flamboyance synonymous with the growing trend for attention-grabbing, set-piece architecture. This steel and glass helix may lack the gargantuan scale of the Burj Khalifa nearby, but the Cayan’s ostentatious appearance indicates that it was not designed to live in the shadow of its famous neighbor.
The twist itself is the focal point of the design, with the uppermost floor plate rotated a full 90 degrees from the ground-floor footprint. While it is an undoubtedly savvy example of structural engineering, the spiraling gesture is an exuberant source of contradiction: It is both the tower’s biggest selling point and its primary source of critical contention.
The cynical among us might quickly conclude that the intention must be to grab 15 minutes of architectural fame in a city when the next glittering tower for the rich and famous is just around the corner. But is there a little more substance behind the glamour than at first glance?
SOM has pre-empted any potential accusation of superficiality by putting forward two reasons for the twisting form besides the aesthetic theatrics. Design Director Ross Wimer points toward the varied views from the building in relation to its context, declaring: “The lower portion of the tower is oriented toward the exciting waterfront promenade of Dubai Marina, while the upper floors are rotated to face the Gulf.”
This is an attractive hypothesis, but its supposed logic crumbles in the face of reality—apartments are situated around a central core on every level, facing in all directions… there are plenty of units on the upper levels with their back to the Gulf. You’ll have to do better than that, Mr. Wimer!
The second reason carries more logical weight. SOM states that, beyond its formalistic distinction, the tower’s twisted shape greatly reduces wind forces on the tower and “confuses the wind” in a way that wind forces cannot organize themselves. In a region where Shamals (strong winds peculiar to the Persian Gulf) are common, this appears to be a reasonably practical excuse for creating forms that move away from the conventional verticality of skyscrapers found in most international metropolises.
Ultimately, though, this building is a statement of the developer’s desire to advertise a lifestyle of glamour and exclusivity. At the grand opening, Ahmed Alhatti, president and chairman of Cayan Group, outlined the overriding driver for SOM’s design brief: “We wanted to develop a different creation to be part of the competition [for towers] in Dubai.”
The key word in this declaration must be “competition.” Just like in 1920s New York, the architectural exploits of one Dubai developer quickly becomes the benchmark for the next to beat. More than just a luxury apartment building, this elegant, egotistical tower is a symbol of perceived commercial prosperity, and—as Dubai attempts to banish the economic troubles of recent times—there will no doubt be many more to come.
Agree? Disagree? State your case here.
Yours helically, The Angry Architect